The First American Saint
He lived for a time in a cave; later a hut in the woods. His clothes were old, full of patches and always the same. He wore a 16-pound cross and chains. He slept on a wooden bench covered by a deerskin. He was in trouble with the government and accused of treason. While this description might sound like a homeless person in one of our nation's cities, this was the life of the first Orthodox saint of America: St. Herman of Alaska.
St. Herman was born into a family of merchants in 1756 near Moscow, Russia but his name at birth is unknown. At the age of 16 he entered the monastery of the Trinity-St. Sergius Hermitage near St. Petersburg and upon his monastic tonsure he was given the name "Herman". He remained a simple monk his entire life and never received ordination as either a deacon or a priest. While living in this monastery he was miraculously healed of a throat infection or abscess through a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary. After five years, Father Herman transferred to the Valaam Monastery located on a series of islands in Lake Ladoga.
Mission to America
The Russian explorer Vitus Bering discovered Alaska in 1741 and within a few years a "Russian-American Company" was formed to establish a Russian colony in this new land and to develop a fur trade. In 1794, Gregory Shelikov requested that the Orthodox Church of Russia send missionaries to bring the light of Christ to the native peoples of Alaska. A team of 10 missionaries were chosen from the Valaam Monastery: Archimandrite Joasaph, Priest-monks Juvenal, Macarius, Athanasius, Stephan and Necartius, Deacon-monks Nectarius and Stephen, and the monks Joasaph and Herman who arrived in Alaska in September, 1794.
Soon after the arrival of the mission team both the merchants of the Russian-American Company and the missionaries were surprised by the unexpected. The missionaries because while the merchants had promised them a church, a school for the natives, and support for their mission work, on their arrival they found no church, no school, and little interest in the work of the mission among their Russian brethren. The Russians were there to make money, period. They sought a profit at any cost: they brutally exploited the natives, (mostly of the Aleut tribe) forcing them to hunt seals to provide pelts for the Russian-American Company. Far from the eyes of the Russian government they routinely robbed and cheated the natives and lost all moral restraint by their immoral conduct with the native women.
The Russian merchants were also surprised, however. They expected the monks to do church stuff and leave the Russians alone to conduct their business without any interference. When the missionaries and Father Herman came to the defense of the natives they were placed under house arrest and forbidden any contact with the native population. The governor of the colony demanded the removal of Father Herman, accusing him of treason by arousing the natives against the Russians.
There were other setbacks for the mission team. Their leader, Father Joasaph, was consecrated the first bishop for America but drowned at sea in a shipwreck on his return from Russia. Another priest, Father Juvenaly, was martyred by a group of natives, the first martyr of America. Others of the group either died or returned to Russia leaving Father Herman all alone.
To Spruce Island
To escape the persecution he faced on Kodiak Island, the base of the mission, Father Herman moved to the nearby Spruce Island in 1808. There he lived for a time in a cave he dug in the ground, later building a small hut, chapel as well as a school and guest house. Here he taught the natives the Gospel of Christ, nursed them through epidemics and prayed and conducted lay services in his chapel. He continued to defend the natives when they were mistreated by the Russians. He became known as worker of miracles. Once on Spruce Island a tsunami threatened the homes and lives of the natives. Father Herman took an icon of the Theotokos, placed it on the sandy beach and prayed. He then turned to the people and said Have no fear, the water will not go higher than the place where this holy icon stands. And as the Elder predicted, the water rose no higher than the icon. Once a certain Russian naval officer, Baron Wrangel wrote a letter to a Metropolitan in Russia which was dictated by Father Herman. When the officer had completed the letter, the Elder congratulated him on attaining the rank of admiral. The Baron had no knowledge of promotion and was surprised by words of the Elder. Only weeks later did word arrive from Russia notifying him of his advancement.
Finally, in December 1837, at the age of 81, Father Herman died. He had asked that the candles in his room be lit and the Acts of the Apostles read. As he gently bowed his head in death, the room was filled with a fragrant scent. As the Elder predicted, no priest was present at his burial since a great storm rocked the harbor separated Spruce Island from Kodiak. A chapel was erected over his grave in 1890, people began to take dirt from his grave through which miracles were performed. On August 9, 1970, the Elder Herman was glorified as the first saint of America: St. Herman of Alaska, Wonderworker of America. His relics rest today in a shrine in Holy Resurrection Church on Kodiak Island, Alaska where a pilgrimage every August draws Orthodox Christians from around the world.
As we honor the memory of this American saint who devoted his life to teaching the gospel to Alaskan natives we, 21st century Orthodox Christians, need a new dedication to teaching the Gospel to our Orthodox people. Orthodox theologian Dr. Bradley Nassif agrees:
The most urgent need in world Orthodoxy at this time is the need for an aggressive internal mission of rededicating or converting our priests and people to Jesus Christ.
Teach our people the Gospel? But we are Orthodox Christians! We have been baptized, sealed with the Holy Spirit in Chrismation and fed with the Holy Eucharist. However in my years as a priest serving in three very different parish communities I have come to realize that our people have never grasped the basic Gospel message. It's not really their fault: we clergy have failed in teaching them the basic message of the good news of Jesus. How do I know this to be true? A simple test: ask an Orthodox family member or friend this simple question: If you died this evening and Jesus asked you why should I let you into My Kingdom, how would you answer? Most Orthodox Christians would reply: Because I believed in You....because I lived a good life.... because I tried to keep the commandments... because I always tried to be kind and helpful to everyone. A non-Orthodox friend of mine, who dropped out of her church years ago, told me that she always reminds her sons: All you need is to live by the Golden Rule. As I grew up and was active in my parish as an altar boy and cantor, I thought I knew the Gospel message: if you're good, you get to go to heaven, if you're bad you go to hell. Yet the message of the Gospel simply states that we will never inherit salvation based on our goodness, our righteousness, how well we kept the commandments. St. Paul in his epistle to the Romans writes:
...for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)
The Holy Scriptures tell us that God is absolutely holy, awesome, and glorious and we are not, no matter what we do. Do I try to live by the Golden Rule? Great, but in God's eyes I still fall short of the glory of God. Do I go to church, keep the fast days, work at church fundraisers? Great, but I still fall short of the glory of God. Am I kind to everyone and helpful? Great! But I still fall short of the glory of God. In order to be saved based on my goodness I must be loving, kind, pure and helpful every minute of my life and no one can do this! All of us are sinners in God's eyes, facing death, judgment and everlasting damnation.
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.(Romans 6:23)
We are facing eternal damnation, but..... God's love for us is so great that His deepest desire is that we live with Him forever. He wants us to have an abundant life here and in the world to come. He offer us a gift: the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Eternal life is in Christ Jesus. It comes from Him. It's not found in the Golden Rule. It's not from living a good, moral life If all we need to do in order to be saved is to "live a good life" why did Jesus suffer and die on the Cross? In order for me to be saved I must get close to the source of eternal life, I must somehow get into the source, I must join myself to the fountain of eternal life.
The Simple Gospel Message
This is the simple gospel message: I can't be saved by my own efforts, by my own goodness, but if my life is joined to Jesus I will be saved. All that we do in the church is designed to help us join our lives to Jesus: prayer, fasting, worship, confession, struggling to keep the commandments, sacraments. Because we have not clearly taught our people this message they believe such things as: I can be a good person without going to church.... My kids have dropped out of the Faith but they are good, moral kids... We don't care much for church, Communion and all that but we try to live the commandments... I am greatly concerned that many, many people who believe they will be saved are facing damnation because they are trusting in their own goodness and not trusting in Jesus. I recently met a terminally ill man in the town of Braddock near Pittsburgh. He realizes he is dying of cancer, he has an intellectual belief in Jesus but has no interest in any kind of faith. He believes, wrongly, that he will go to heaven because "I've lived a good life!" He is seriously mistaken. Unless he comes to Jesus, unless He joins His life to Jesus, he is lost. I pray that there is time to bring him to salvation!
Through the prayers of St. Herman of Alaska, may we re-dedicate ourselves to preaching and teaching this simple gospel message which will lead us and our families to eternal life.
- Father Edward Pehanich